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The Bugs and the Bees: A Guide to Entomology Outreach, Even During a Pandemic

surveying local insects

A bit of scouting for local insects can help inform youth entomology education and outreach programs, whether in person or virtual. (Photo courtesy of Tessa Shates, Ph.D.)

By Tessa Shates

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.

Tessa Shates

Tessa Shates

Insects have important roles as both heroes and villains, as well as neutral house guests either feared or ignored, and their ubiquity makes them accessible to both civilians and scientists. Entomology outreach is an essential part of inviting the public to learn about these characters. Frequently, graduate students are at the forefront of engaging the public in this field. However, not every graduate student is prepared to interact with a pre-entomologist, nor are they convinced that this is an important activity. The following is a beginner’s guide to initiating outreach: why to try, how to start, and what to do while more traditional classroom visits are not available during the current wave of virus spread.

Why?

There are myriad reasons why it’s important for scientists to provide public outreach. Your visit to a classroom could inspire a future scientist or expand the students’ concepts of who can be a scientist. Not only do you directly benefit the students you teach, but you also combat the growing anti-science movement. What’s more, you benefit yourself—and, no, not just by adding a couple of lines on your résumé. Engaging the community about your research or about entomology in general can be a grounding, reaffirming experience. After so much time in the lab focusing on your specialty within entomology, it can be refreshing to reconnect with what may have brought you into this field in the first place.

How?

I am a graduate student at University of California, Riverside, where we have a well-established outreach program that predates my career as a scientist, but I recognize that not every department has an interest in (or the means of) reaching out to the broader community on a large scale. So, starting small, and taking steps now, is important.

If you plan to visit classrooms, you’ll need live insects. Unlike other charismatic animals, insects are relatively easy to care for and can be safely and easily transported to a classroom. The best starter insect is the Madagascar hissing cockroach: they can easily be handled and they require little besides a steady supply of fruits and vegetables, warm temperatures, and a vivarium. The best part is that you don’t need a permit to start your colony, because they are sold as feeder insects for large reptiles.

Curated insect specimens are also excellent for classroom visits. Most younger students are thrilled by live insects, but at a certain age, fear sets in. Insect collections help more fearful participants get a closer look. Large, exotic insects with bright colors and large bodies are exciting, of course, but a “backyard bugs” collection for the local region would be the most helpful for engaging the public in a dialogue about the experiences that have shaped their attitudes toward insects (“That beetle flew into my hair! I’m scared!”) and helping to give them another perspective (“That beetle can’t hurt you, it’s a vegetarian that recycles decomposing matter, and look how beautiful and shiny it is!”).

To really engage students in a classroom, you’ll need to step away from the PowerPoint presentation. Most students are tired of fact-filled PowerPoints flashing in front of their eyes. One of my colleagues has students join her in a song about insect body segments. My lab engages participants in a “smell game,” testing their host-seeking skills with mystery essential oils. Another colleague has created free coloring pages of invasive insects. Personally, I enjoy simple conversations where I lead kids and grownups to make connections about the natural world around them (like pointing out that insects don’t have noses—so what could they be using to sense smell?). I also bring my own research insect (the mighty melon aphid) with me when I visit classrooms, because part of the experience is not just sharing general entomology, but sharing your own personal work or interests.

For some more ideas for things to try when you reach the classroom (if that is your destination), see Carolyn Trietsch’s entomology outreach tips.

But What About Right Now?

Clearly, the current environment does not lend itself to classroom visits because insects aren’t the only “bug” out there. Taking advantage of extra downtime you may have now to start an insect collection or colony is a good way to start preparing for future outreach activities, but don’t forget that there are alternatives to traditional classroom visits. It has become more critical than ever to harness virtual resources or social media platforms if you are pursuing outreach and engaging with the public as part of your graduate experience. Kadie Britt’s recent article highlights some of the important social media platforms you can use to make research more accessible.

Just last month, I did my first Skype a Scientist session to talk about my experiences as an entomologist. Contradicting my earlier advice, my attachment to classroom teaching meant that I could not leave the PowerPoint behind, but I filled it with photos and videos in addition to text. Due to classroom closures, the audience I reached was small: I spoke to a parent and two children under six. This may seem “low-impact,” but this small-group experience can be incredibly meaningful and more personal for everyone. The most important part of outreach is making a connection, and a smaller audience lends itself to that more easily.

In many places, research has been halted or slowed, and that means limited contact with fellow academics and friends and family. During these long months, I have enjoyed watching my friends and colleagues create content on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Interacting with new people and creating positive entomology-related content is a valuable way to do outreach, and to feel connected not only with the public, but also with other scientists trying to do the same.

A Quick Review of Virtual Media Outlets

  • Letters to a Pre-Scientist: an organization that pairs fifth- to tenth-grade students in low-income communities with pen pals working in STEM fields.
  • Facebook: generally made for reaching out to friends and family you already know, but a great way to teach casually about what your life as a scientist is like. You can create a page to interact with the public; entomology meme pages have great success with this.
  • Instagram: a social platform primarily geared toward sharing photos and videos, and another great way to share your life as a scientist. A growing number of labs (@heratylab, @oxynativebees, @saskbugs, to name just a few) and journals (such as @insectessociaux) now have their own accounts.
  • TikTok: a video-sharing platform originally created for dance and talent videos. This platform is popular with undergraduate students, and videos like this popular example can be reposted onto Twitter from TikTok.

  • Twitter: a social media platform that allows only small blurbs of text, though it can also accommodate images, videos, and links to other web content. When starting out on Twitter, it can feel like shouting into the void. With some effort, you can connect to other scientists and the public by following people, retweeting (reposting), and posting your own original content. For example, during February of 2019, @hannahhchu created a chain of tweets (#FruitFlyFebruary) about her study organism to spread information, but also reach out to more people. Twitter is my favorite of the platforms listed here because I can use it to connect to scientists around the world, not just within my department.

Other Techniques

  • Post artwork to social media. @MSankovitz creates artfully illustrated pamphlets describing the recent publications of graduate students, postdocs, and faculty at her department.

  • Record podcasts. A group of students (grad and undergrad) and researchers came together to create SciComm@UCR, and in their 2019–2020 academic year, they produced their first podcast season of Beyond the Bench. Another popular podcast created by a pair of graduate students is This Podcast Will Kill You, about disease ecology.
  • Make virtual connections with student groups outside of official platforms. One of my recently graduated labmates, Rachel, has been giving advice to a local Girl Scout Troop about entomology, beneficial insects, and creating pollinator boxes. In the photo atop this post, Rachel is preparing for the discussion by surveying local insects to talk about with the troop.

Tessa Shates is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Entomology at University of California, Riverside, and is the Pacific Branch Student Representative on the ESA Student Affairs Committee. Twitter: @TShates. Email: tshat003@ucr.edu.

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